All advertising is, in a sense, a way of falsating. But wherea before the message I was probably trying to sell a real thing – a car or a hamburger – today the message itself is often the product.
“The source of value is the observation work done by the public; After all, this is the activity that produces public attention, which is the good that is sold,” Zoe Sherman, a professor at Merrimack College, explains to DW.
So when business and politics intertwine so closely – as they did during Donald Trump’s presidency – it’s no surprise that some aspects of public discourse become infected with idioms taken directly from marketing and entertainment.
Political analysts Jaroslaw Kuisz and Karolina Wigura call it “populistainment,” a mixture of politics, populism and entertainment, when the media becomes a theater for continuous performance aimed at capturing and maintaining public attention.
“If serving dopamine is the only way to get the attention of a boring brain, it’s no surprise that many politicians practice it. As in markets, where there is demand, supply follows,” Wigura tells DW.
In this sense, it doesn’t matter if the misinformation is what is sold. Content is nothing more than a product, such as data or bananas, with a supply chain, a sales platform, and a distribution network. Companies can position themselves directly or indirectly throughout this supply chain.
Some political commentators in the United States, such as Glenn Beck, the late Russ Limbaugh and Alex Jones, became what Sherman calls “ideological entrepreneurs,” televangelists for the internet age.
On the cusp of his popularity, in 2017-2018, Jones attracted 2 million listeners a week to his streaming radio show. His website, Infowars.com, had 20 million monthly visits. Infowars’ business model relies heavily on monetizing the fears he himself helps create and enliven. For example, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Jones saying that he had discovered that InfoWars was selling products such as SuperSilver bleaching toothpaste, stating, without scientific foundation, that immunity to Covid increased, it may not be a coincidence that Jones had spent the previous months promoting the view that authorized vaccination was a fraud ted by “liberal elites.”
About 80% of the revenue of Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company, came from sales of its web store, according to a Jones profile published in 2018 in the German weekly Der Spiegel.
“Jones is an opportunist with media experience and politically very skilled, as well as a smart businessman, so he’ll take every opportunity to get attention and make money,” says Hilde Van den Bulck of Drexel University in Philadelphia to DW.
Together with Aaron Hyzen of the University of Antwerp, he has studied the Jones phenomenon for years. Jones, he says, even cultivated a relationship with former President Donald Trump to boost sales.
Others share this view. “They themselves are brands that have to adapt quickly to emerging conspiracy narratives and developments,” Clare Birchall, an academic at Kings College London, explains. “As such, they create complex conspiracy cosmologies and, based on that, sell books, goods and services,” he says.
The role of social media
However, the momentum that has accelerated the commodization of conspiracy theories and taken them from the rooms of the far-fetched extremists to the social mass has been the rapid democratization of digital production and dissemination. “These are the opportunities for self-provision offered by social media platforms, new avenues of online monetization, and a emboldened populist policy that fosters conspiracy subjectivities that can be affirmed through forms of consumption,” Birchall says.
“By the time social media began banning profiles related to Jones (since mid-2018) and QAnon (since late 2020), they had already achieved their goal of bringing extreme ideas to public opinion,” Van den Bulck agrees.
As of August 2018, social media like Facebook, YouTube and later Twitter, withdrew Jones’ accounts, while Apple removed their podcasts from iTunes and PayPal withdrew its services from the Infowars web store.
Social media didn’t invent conspiracies, nor can they be blamed for an individual deciding to believe in a conspiracy theory, van den Bulck says. “However, the web and especially social media serve as a meeting point, an ‘informative’ resource and a megaphone,” he says.
And, further, after Twitter banned its accounts in October 2018, Alex Jones’ radio show was retaken by a conservative radio station. Jones’ celebrity status also meant that the traditional media continued to look at him. His attention also generated clicks – and income – for him and for them. And that way a vicious circle closes.